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A fun outing to a Fort Worth bingo hall on a pleasantly warm January afternoon was soured after Billy Mittel tripped in the parking lot, took a spill, and scraped his shoulder, legs, and chin. The strawberries and bruises were painful and ugly but not serious. Still, Mittel was moaning in pain. The 53-year-old has Down syndrome and relies upon his guardian of almost 30 years, Sandra Wood, to care for him. It’s a responsibility that Wood savors. She considers Mittel her son. Together they visit the zoo, eat at restaurants with friends almost every day, and stay busy while keeping each other company. Mittel doesn’t speak clearly and relies on simple sign language at times, but he and Wood understand each other well.

“We used to get 10 or 15 loaves of bread and go to Joe Pool Lake and feed the fish,” Wood said. “He loves to go, go go.”

And now he has been taken from her.

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The injuries alerted Mental Health and Mental Retardation of Tarrant County. Nurses and probate court investigators and attorneys made home visits. Wood is blunt spoken and can be irascible at times. She is also sweet and giving, a woman who has devoted most of her adult life to caring for a mentally challenged man who requires close supervision. Wood said she had never been cited or chastised by MHMR or any other agency regarding her care of Mittel in 28 years despite regular, unannounced home visits.

Everything changed after Mittel fell. Wood’s overprotective nature might have worked against her.

First, she took Mittel to an Arlington clinic, the First Choice Emergency Room, one of several in North Texas associated with First Texas Hospital. After prescribing an antibiotic and a mild painkiller, the doctor took numerous X-rays all over Mittel’s body, which might have contributed to the concerns of the probate court and MHMR that the injuries were more serious than Wood had described.

Wood’s 47-year-old daughter, Virginia Jefferis, said the doctor took numerous X-rays because of Mittel’s diminished capacity to communicate. “Since he verbally could not say, ‘Yes, that hurt’ or ‘that didn’t hurt,’ the doctor did X-rays,” Jefferis said. “I was glad they did X-rays.”

After leaving the emergency room, Wood took Mittel home. She gave him an antibiotic and pain pill and had him rest on the living room couch so she could watch him from her nearby easy chair. Later, though, she worried that an MHMR inspector might say she hadn’t done enough to treat Mittel, who was still complaining about pain. For a second opinion, she loaded him back in the car and drove to Harris Hospital, where she has admitted herself several times in the past couple of years for blood-sugar issues related to her diabetes.

The hospital staff said that Mittel, whose medical costs are covered by Medicaid, was fine and sent him back home with a stronger pain prescription. Wood said she did not give Mittel any of the new pain medicine because she had already treated him earlier.

The two doctor visits appear to have alerted MHMR. Staffers made a couple of visits to Wood’s house, and a nurse suspected that Wood had over-medicated Mittel and not cleaned his wounds properly. Her report prompted a probate court to remove Wood as guardian and place Mittel in a group home. Wood is no longer allowed to visit him. Probate court judges can move swiftly to remove a guardian and take control of someone’s life. On the other hand, the same judges can move with the slowness of tree sap when it comes to reversing a decision or reestablishing someone’s rights. Wood has tried for weeks to get court officials to listen to her, without success.

Billy Mittel sits on Santa’s knee in 2014. Courtesy of Sandra Wood

“It doesn’t seem legit,” Jefferis said. “It’s so sad. [Mittel] is used to going out to eat every day. They go everywhere. And now he’s in a group home with other Down syndrome people. They don’t do what he’s used to doing.”

Mittel’s biological parents never took him home from the hospital after he was born. He spent his childhood as a ward of the state before meeting Wood.

“I was the only family that [Mittel] has ever had,” Wood said.

The last time Wood saw Mittel, he was signing “home.” The sign involves holding your hands in the shape of a roof, like an upside down V. All these weeks later, Wood still envisions Mittel making that sign and wondering why the only mother he ever knew has disappeared from his life. Wood received $733 a month from social security to care for Mittel but said she doesn’t care about the money.

“I just want him back home,” Wood said.

MHMR and court officials will not talk about the case, citing confidentiality requirements. Officials are required to make judgment calls and, at times, act swiftly. It’s not unusual for probate judges to err on the side of caution by removing someone as guardian without a hearing. Later, they can listen to arguments and change their minds if needed. But that puts the onus on people like Wood, who lives on a fixed income, to hire an attorney and prove he or she is a responsible guardian. Wood says she can’t afford an attorney.

Sometimes agency officials must make tough decisions when guardians grow old. Wood isn’t the same hard-charging woman she was in her 40s when she brought Mittel home. She’s now 71, diabetic, overweight, suffers creaky joints, and relies on a walker. She doesn’t get around well. Nor does Mittel, thus the fall.

Sandra Wood has been crying for Mittel every day for two months. Photo by Jeff Prince.

Wood has lost 50 pounds from the stress in the last two months. She has been accused of abusing a person she loves with all her heart. She cries often and feels like her son was ripped away from her for no reason.

“Everyone was devastated when this all went down,” Jefferis said. Mittel “doesn’t have an understanding at all. He just knows he’s not home anymore. The way they’ve gone about this is totally wrong. I can’t imagine just taking someone away from their home. My mom did not harm [Mittel], and this has never happened before after all these years. It was an accident. [Mittel] was very well taken care of. I know he’s just as devastated as she is, and I don’t have any answers.”

6 COMMENTS

  1. Peckerwoods tend to be Peckerwoods, hammer-heads behave like hammer-heads. We need not be smart to recognize that fact. Government drudges, Government judges, tax-paid drones and knuckle-heads are not at all uncommon both in Fort Worth and Texas….this is not news, What’s interesting to me is the fact that the hammer-heads and self-important government big shots, tend to be Repugs, and bone-headed Baggers. True. Our Texas local and state government were Democrat from it’s beginning up until President Johnson made the demand to give Negro Americans the same benefits and consideration as Anglos. From the next election until today, Texas has mostly been Hooray for me…Screw-You Repug and now Half-Wit Bagger-Repug, and so it goes. I hate to consider what will come next. When will we ever learn?

  2. The guardianship programs in each US state and in Canada have no effective oversight – just the way the probate judges and their constituents that make money from the “system” like it. If there is one professional guardian that actually considers the best interest of the “ward”, I haven’t met them yet – in any of the FIVE Texas probate court systems I have been involved with. Who benefits? Judges get campaign contributions (even when they have no opponent) from the attorneys that regularly appear before them and the “professional” guardians that are paid to keep any family and friends away from the “ward” – all in the name of keeping the ward “safe”. It sure does pay well though and it liquidates estates in record time for the professionals’ benefit. Once the ward’s estates are liquidated, the taxpayers are on the hook – not to keep the wards “safe” in reality, just to fund the “system” and its players. It is a legal vortex for the detriment of many and the benefit of a few.

  3. When Child Protective Services gets involved in suspected abuse cases of children, the goal is to unify the family. However, this is not the case when adults are involved. Adults (be they disabled I/DD adults or the elderly) are often removed from family and family then can be completely shut out of their loved ones life forever.

    Sandra Wood is Billy Mittel’s family. Billy wants to go home. Surely he feels that because he can’t, he is being punished.

    Sandra Wood should not be discriminated against because she is 71 or because she has health problems. She gives Billy one-on-one supervision and care – and she loves him as if he were her own. Denying Billy the comfort and presence of Sandra Wood is inhumane treatment of him. The system has let this young man and his caregiver down and should be embarrassed.

    Join the national movement for reform of unlawful and abusive guardianships. Join NASGA!

  4. Aloha (to whomever it may concern),

    First this is in reference to the case of Sandra Woods & HER SON Billy Mittel(after 30 years YES I call him my nephew and my sisters son). Just in case your job has set your mind to the predisposition that every one you encounter is in the foster care program for profit I would advise all involved to OPEN your minds and question a “new nurse” if they are aware that a “HUMAN BEING & his family of 30 years ..” has been destroyed in an overzealous attempt at suddenly having “powers..” that are not to be taken lightly.

    I am quite sure ya’ll have already erased them from your collective administrative memories and cleared your outbox of the fear that Billy must endure every night wondering WHY his family has deserted him. I am also sure that in the mind of your bureaucratic system Billy has become again a number and an another honorable “WIN….” on your future resumes.

    This of course is the case of Sandra Lee Wood and our family (which for over 30 years Billy Mittel has been a beloved member of a REAL FAMILY !!! Sandras crime was taking TO GOOD OF CARE of Billy!! first taking him to a care center and when their care worried her she then took him to the E.R. out of love and worry. WHY would someone who was abusing her son walk into not one but TWO emergency care facilities?? Are these the actions of an abusive money grubbing foster caretaker??

    Billy is a child who has never taken pain medications and any nurse will tell you that it is not uncommon for a persons first time on even mild pain killers will “normally..” react in the exact manner as described in the nurses opine of Billy being hard to wake up, however the story does NOT end there. Now LETS ADD ON TO THIS FACT that Billy was given a “MILD Painkiller & antibiotics & xrays” at the first Care Center, and then he was released after HOURS of sitting in a care clinic by then extremely tired and wanting to go home. Yet Loving him as she does hours later after getting home Sandra slept next to him on the sofa next to him when she noted he was still in pain so she then took him to another ER at the Hospital where guess what he was seen and for a second time told again nothing was broken but AGAIN in the same night was “DOSED” up a “second time with a much stronger Narcotic..” and more antibiotics (which also cause drowsiness as well as anaphylactic shock drowsiness) !!! So yes he probably was sleepy, hard to wake up, not to mention disoriented from being woken up by a roomful of strangers all freaking out over him in his home !!! Then being drug off from his “hanai” mother to never see her again. Imagine the FEAR my nephew is being put through because he is handicapped and he did NOT have an interpreter to calmly talk to him? He was sleepless, dosed on multiple pain killers and antibiotics, surrounded and being touched by strangers who were consistently questioning him in manners he could not or was afraid to respond too. Basically he was drugged up by two facilities and then expected to react and respond in a manner that even a normal un-drugged child would be frightened of. But you see that’s the problem, Billy is NOT a regular child. He was born over sensitive to touch, to sound, to smells, to all things new to him. He was confused and abused is true but not by my sister Sandra!!! It was by a young nurse trying their best to catch a criminal & judging my sister because she is as they say can be (blunt spoken and can be irascible, neither of which is a crime), instead of helping a family.

    Now to the injury itself. Billy was seen by not 1 but 2 hospitals, both “repeating” similar treatments. When they arrived gestapo style at my sisters home, she was already pre-judged of negligence because that was the easiest way to explain away the multiple pain meds being given to him.

    And the fact that they even gave her prescriptions for MORE pain killers which were all accounted for and Sandy had not given him any more because he was already treated TWICE !! All of this paints a much clearer picture of Billys disorientation on top of his lack of sleep.

    They admit the scrape was bandaged and had if anything to much antibacterial cream on it. It is said that it was dripping with a clear liquid (yes triple antibiotic cream), I saw no test that a swab was done and the wound was openly infected or neglected (any normal child would have had a test done to find out what the infection was to prescribe the correct antibiotic. Especially if the infection was that horrific looking had not even existed long enough for openly draining pustules to even have developed unless not one but two medical facilities missed such a fast growing infection !!! Facts are that infections as described take days to become puss filled, red, and swollen. If a simple road rash scrape that has been treated in 2 hospitals within hours of each other there would be no signs of a severe infection except under very very rare cases of possibly an immune system issue or hiv/aids. What is described does not develop in a couple hours.

    What we have here are one of two scenarios 1) Sandra in an abundance of care when changing the dressing put on a bit extra cream which is harmless (good in fact), who laid with the child to watch him closely and rushed to get him better care the very moment he communicated to her that he was still hurting. 2) Or secondly a newly trained nurse the day before “DID NOT..” put adequate antibiotic cream on the wound and/or did not clean it well at all causing it to do the nearly impossible and become severely infected with 48 hours of her “professional cleaning and bandaging of the wound….” to begin with!!! Because if as she claims Sandra DID NOT change the dressing at all his scrapes would not fester and begin to generate and discharge large amounts of infected draining puss !!!

    Just a wild guess on my part, but right now you are probably thinking WHO is this guy writing this letter and who is Billy Mittel & his family. After all you all have probably “Torn Apart…” many more families in the last few months. But just give it a second and you will remember the Fort Worth Weekly article “Torn Apart…” I am sure though.

    So may I ask you to do the rest of the work of destroying our family of 30 years?? Who do I now talk to several times a week? Who do I send the coffee I home grow and hand roast for him?? Who do I send the new cds I produce with my photos on their covers that you will see always in his room on his bed as he draws?? Have YOU bothered to look at his new room?? At his new clothing at his privacy and friends?? Have you taken this man who for 25 plus years has eaten out with folks who have adopted him in their hearts and spend their time communicating with him equally instead of making decisions for him on such things as happiness and WHERE he wants to be. WHO he misses most in life, have you sat him down because of your CAREING fir his best interests and shown him photos of HIS FAMILY?? Have you shown you grand pop and grand mom and his nieces and nephews just to do the RIGHT THING IN GODS EYES when you see and hear his reactions and sadness at what YOU stole from his life because he does not understand the concept of simply ERASING his entire life??

    Who explains to him when xmas comes and he does NOT receive the gifts he has for 30 YEARS !!!! Has he been out to eat with his friends since you stole him?? Has he been to a hotel pool since he was taken??

    In my beliefs and faith we wonder HOW people such as you who offer NOTHING but confusion and deep seated loss and pain to the handicap. If he was Pilipino you would get a translator, same for a Mexican or a Japanese but for Billy was a specialist brought in to show him photos and COMMUNICATE in manners he understands?? No of course not !!!! You simply pat yourself on the back and tell yourselves how special you are !!!

    What has been done to Billy is a disgrace !!! He was going to move in with my wife and I one day we dreamed of when Sandra was unable to continue but were we even considered or called?? HEll no !!!!

    30 years of love and faith however means nothing to a bureaucratic system.

    SHAME on your kind of lazy, crazy and bizarre form of self love or loathing. A narcissism devouring anyone who dares cross its path…..

    Do the RIGHT thing and hire a psychiatrist to have a couple seasons with Billy and set up meetings with Sandra and this time LISTEN & OPEN your eyes and ears to who Billy is happy with…

    God WILL judge you far harder than Billy or my family ever can because it is your (action/lack of) that have removed him from the happy man he was in the attached photo !!! SHAME ON YOU!!! Do you see the cd on his bed there??

    Well that is ME on the cover !!! He loves me and my family. He does NOT have 30 years more in life to form the bonds he has with our family. Who takes measure and blame for giving this handicapped child and stealing his entire life from him? Who does Billy blame? When Sandra delivered his meds to the parking lot and Billy saw her what was his reaction??? Did he ignore her?? Or did he cry, yell, and did it take two men to hold him back from running to Sandy???

    At the VERY least Billy should be with Sandra Friday sat and sundays… BUT in mine and I believe GODS eyes he deserve to be with the ONLY family who has ever loved him his entire life !!

    Think about it and think of the pain you have caused a handicapped man through these past months….

    I will pray that your family never has to endure the agony and distress that this helpless child has had inflicted upon his life. I pray to God that SOMEONE in Texas decides to let life take its course for Billy and Sandra. You see we have lost our mother our father and our sister in the past decade by Gods will, now we are losing my nephew as well.

    I also pray that whomever could allow this to happen sleeps as well as Billy, Sandra and our family now does. Could you IMAGINE this loss?? Hell even Charles Mansons family knows where he is and can tell him they love him (God forbid that they do) but the point is that BILLY is a Man/child who has done no one wrong and Sandra has been a BLESSING to the Great State of Texas for giving her entire life to help a child know love. She GAVE her entire life to him at great cost to her own happiness and life only to be tossed to the curb and to lose a “motherless” child who because of her love never knew a lack of love, compassion or the comfort of having a mom.

    Rev. Joed Miller (ordained)

    ps– these are my opinions and I want it known that someone somewhere has really made a mistake in the handling of this case. Plus YES Sandy is getting old, so is Billy. He understands death well, and could understand if Sandra was to pass away. He would understand that change comes with death he has lost his Grandfather, his Grandmother and his Aunt Lisa. But he will never understand this travesty, this child will never understand having his life stolen. Sadly by now he may even believe that Sandy has died or worse yet simply abandoned him. That is simply sinful and sad.

  5. Has there been an update to this story? It was so very heartbreaking. I have a special needs brother, and I can’t imagine something like this. I really hope Billy was reunited with his family soon after this article was written. Does anyone have any new information?

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